Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Death Cab For Cutie Interview

There’s been a rumour about town of late that Death Cab for Cutie have gone mad. It all started when guitarist Chris Walla told MTV back in October that the new album would be “a crazy, weird, heavy-rock record.” Then, last month the first single was released; called ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, it clocks it at a mammoth eight and a half minutes – hardly radio friendly! Even odder, for a band whose teenage fanbase has grown largely around Ben Gibbard’s ability to translate the soppy into song, the first single sports a five-minute instrumental introduction before getting into any kind of lyrical lament. Now, with their sixth album, ‘Narrow Stairs’, due for release this coming May, Gigwise decided to give Ben himself the chance to explain all this sudden musical insanity…

Ben Gibbard, Death Cab’s moonfaced frontman, is almost breathless with anticipation as he starts to talk about ‘Narrow Stairs’. “Well, we’re all incredibly proud of this record,” he begins. “It’s pound for pound a lot more rock tunes, and I think far less glossy than the last record as far the production sense. It’s got a kind of abrasive element to it that’s more akin to how our live show is, and some of the quietest, minimal moments that we’ve had.”

Quiet and minimal at times, maybe, but when did we ever associate Death Cab with “rock tunes”? It was the gliding emo-electronica of Transatlanticism, back in 2003, which first had kids gazing sorrowfully at bedroom ceilings after the girl from maths turned them down in the playground. There’s always been something charming in the floating piano loops and frank-but-emotionally-connected lyrics that allowed Death Cab to progress from obscurity into mainstream cool, a position that was cemented with their appearance on America’s cult series, the O.C., in 2005. So all this talk of “rock tunes” seems pretty out of character for a band that have made a name for themselves with glacial, synth-led pop-songs.

But Ben doesn’t seem to think the leap is too great for Death Cab. “I think that if someone has been a fan of the band for the last handful of years they’ll definitely find things in this record to really enjoy.” His relaxed attitude seems to be derived from a sense that the progression towards guitar-led rock music is a natural one for Death Cab, and one that they’re hopeful their fans will embrace, too. “Our primary goal has always been to make music that we feel is inspired, and that we feel has a quality that we feel putting out in the world, and we feel fortunate at this point that that has translated into some modicum of commercial success. So if there is commercial success to be had with a record like we’ve just made then of course we would like to revel in that, but if that’s not on the cards I don’t think any of us would feel as if we had failed in any capacity.

“Our song are songs, you know, they’re hummable, they’re pop songs, I don’t think there’s anything about this record or any record that we’ve made that the world is not ready for. If we don’t get played on the radio as much as we did last time that will be of course a little disappointing, but not the end of the world. It has never been a motivation for why we’ve made records.”

The emphasis on the music is one that obviously shines through on records like ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, with its delayed vocal entry. Ben seemed conscious that this is a very different style of writing than what fans might be used to as he explained, “as Nick put the bass line in we started kind of playing with the song. The idea was that we just kind of played it and let the themes kind of build and when it feels right really dive into the lyrics… and it just so happened that that was five minutes into the song. As it was going down on tape we realised that we had never presented a song this way before, but I hope people accept it from us, I don’t think it’s such a wild departure that we’ll lose people.”

Death Cab adopted a different approach to the recording of ‘Narrow Lines’, too, one that is very much at odds with the heavily produced gloss of earlier work, such as 2005’s ‘Plans’. Ben described it simply as “the sound of four people playing in a room”. They also decided to record the album on to two-inch tape rather than computers, giving them very little space for overdubbing, and producing a very real, live sound. This was a return to their early recording technique according to Ben. “We recorded our first four albums on tape so we decided to go back to that format with us all playing together live. Clearly there were some overdubs here or there but the organic element that you hear in ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ is in a direct relation to the fact that that song was played from start to finish with all four of us playing at the same time.”

In an age where computers are used to create, market and distribute music, this back to basics approach certainly seems at odds with where the majority of the industry is heading. But Ben didn’t seem to think it was a particularly innovative approach, just one that is perhaps necessary to maintain a visceral authenticity about music. “People have been making records like that since the first fifty years of recorded sound, but it’s becoming more rare with every day that people rely on computers to fix our problems,” he explained. “I think it’s the imperfections that give things personality. It’s that mole on your neck, it’s the weird little glitch in the guitar, it’s those little elements that give everything in this world personality and I think the further we move into the digital world the more likely we are to lose more of those elements and therefore a lot of the personality that we have.”

Recording things live also produced some happily unexpected results for Death Cab. Ben cited ‘Talking Birds’ as his favourite track on the new album, one that “just turned out really beautifully” on the first recording. He explains that the album explores, as a theme, the notion “when you watch a movie and at the end of the movie people embrace and people are happy and the credits roll. I think a lot of the songs are a case of what might happen if the credits stopped rolling and you were back with these characters that you’ve just watched for an hour and a half, and now you have to really see them enter the world.”

After over a decade writing and performing as Death Cab For Cutie, Gigwise wonders whether this might not be how Ben is feeling too. As grown-up popstars, has the gloss finally worn off being an internationally acclaimed musician? But Ben just laughs: “I think we’re the only band in the states to sell a million records and not be famous!” He then quickly adds: “I’m quite happy with that. Our music is clearly the most interesting thing about the four of us as a collective. We’re not the most iconic of individuals. Whenever I go back to Seattle after being on the road for a long time I feel very fortunate that I can slip back into walking around the city I live in and eating in restaurants, going to shows and not really having to be any kind of big deal when I’m there. We wouldn’t make very good pop stars either, even if we tried!”

Maybe Death Cab for Cutie have gone a bit mad, to suddenly shun the elements of their music that have always brought them the most success, and swap their mixer for a cassette-player. Equally, though, their newfound love of the imperfect is a breath of fresh air in a musical era that seems convinced that only the spotless is satisfactory. This Seattle four-piece might not feel they’ve quite attained pop stardom yet, but there’s every indication that ‘Narrow Stairs’ might just change all that, whether Ben likes it or not.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Singles Reviews: March 2008

Look See Proof – Do You Think It’s Right released 24th March 2008
The promising likely lads from Look See Proof are warming up to the release of their debut album in June with this single taken from it. As a sign of things to come, it could be worse for the Hertfordshire four-piece. Riding the crest of the fashionable uptempo indie wave, Look See Proof blend the fast pace of dance floor fillers from Bloc Party with the colloquial guitar-pop vocal stabs of the Pigeon Detectives. Though this might sound like a nightmarish combination, the result is an inoffensive, polished kind of chaos. ‘Do You Think It’s Right’ opens with an angular guitar riff that spills into unpredictable, skittering high hat and cheerful bassline, overlaid with well-placed, melodic guitar work and infectiously repetitive lyrics that that will stick in the heads of indie-kids like their favourite hair product. There’s a good few chorus yells and an unwinding drum build up mid-track for good measure, too. Though the outfit is perhaps best boxed with the commercially popular likes of The Wombats than the melodic inventiveness of The Maccabees or Mystery Jets, this comfortable middle-ground gives Look See Proof both indie credibility and a more universal appeal that shows promise for the forthcoming album.

Clinic – The Witch released 24th March 2008
Anyone who has ever witnessed the surgically costumed strangeness of Clinic live will be aware that chart success have never been particularly high on this Liverpudlian four-piece’s list of priorities. Things are no different with new single ‘The Witch’, which also announces the release of Clinic’s fifth studio album next month. Describing the escape from a modern-day witch-hunt in search of a new future, the single has a sixties-sensible dance floor chug about it, carried through with lingering trade-mark organ backing and lisping, swing-like percussion. Ade Blackburn’s distinctive acid vocals are beguiling, making for a mesmerically psychedelic track that practically defies named comparisons. Clinic have long established themselves as rather fashionably commercially elusive, yet always critically adored, and their latest single shows little signs of any swing to the mainstream.

It Hugs Back – Other Cars Go released 31st March 2008
Seductively murmuring vocals over layered barely-moving guitar melodies that strum seamlessly into an ethereal dreamland, ‘Other Cars Go’ is the kind of caramelised post-shoegaze indie-pop that manages to express cosy Sundays in sound. Too soft and pleasantly sparse to approach My Bloody Valentine’s sound-drenched nineties cacophony, It Hugs Back still manage to incorporate a good build up of senseless guitar-noise and strange organ tones into this single, taken from their forthcoming debut album. Vocals merely act as another layer of melodious weave for It Hugs Back, who concentrate attention on filling their music with finely pitched fuzz to create an aural blanket that is warmly numb, like frozen fingers curled under the duvet.

Be Your Own Pet Interview

It’s been two years since Be Your Own Pet unleashed themselves on the world with the furious punk-angst of their eponymous debut album. Now back in the UK to announce its sequel, ‘Get Awkward’, it still seems impossible to imagine these state-side kids as fully grown. With an average age of barely twenty and more energy than an ADHD kid on blue smarties, the Nashville foursome show little signs of slowing things down. Gigwise caught up with guitarist Jonas Stein to find out about being a teenager on the road, coping with the British rain, and the future for a band whose music seems more rampantly teenage than ever…

Despite the name of their new album, there was nothing awkward about Jonas Stein last week. You could almost see him slumped in a hotel room chair from the laid-back drawl emanating from the phone, playing the introverted skater kid behind his long rocker-boy hair. Be Your Own Pet had landed in Glasgow just a few hours beforehand, Jonas explained, and he’d managed to escape to the hotel room to get some shut-eye before their Scottish debut that night, elaborating of life on the road: “there isn’t too much middle ground, it’s like really fucking fun or really shitty.”

In keeping with the adolescent theme on ‘Get Awkward’, that addresses everything pubescent from playground feuds to high-school heartbreak, Jonas seemed to have plenty to moan about, particularly “lack of sleep, and waiting around. We had to catch a ferry to get over here, and it was really tiring, just trying to find a comfortable position to get some sleep. Another big problem is jet-lag. It usually takes the first two weeks to adjust to that, so the first two weeks are tiring because of jet-lag.”

The troubles don’t end with the jet-lag, either. “One thing I have trouble with is the weather, I’m very weather-sensitive. It’s just pretty grey and wet and cold, so I have to deal with that.” And then, just as Jonas began to risk descending into proper teenage paroxysms, he rescued his rant with: “Aside from that I like it.”

Be Your Own Pet have a special brand of nu-punk, one that blends the heavy guitar riffs of eighties Buzzcocks with the musical fun of Blondie. Like Karen O stripped of her maturity, but still smarting from the fight, vocalist Jemina Pearl is capable of terrifying lyrical rage, transforming the juvenile in “I don’t wanna do what you tell me to/I don’t have to listen to you,” into to the genuinely fearsome. When asked about the different reception the band get here, the birthplace of punk, compared to stateside, Jonas began to sound a bit more cheerful: “I feel like everyone’s a lot more up for it over here. There are always a lot more fans over here. I wouldn’t call us mainstream, but I think we’re more mainstream here than in the states.”

Pressed to say why that might be the case, he elaborated, “I think the UK is exposed to better music, the radio’s a lot more diverse. There’s a bigger population in a smaller square number of miles. Half of the people in America never hear anything other than rap songs and pop songs.” But being so young, there are a few perks to still being pretty unknown in the states, as Jonas explained, “Home’s kind of tame. It’s the one thing that’s stayed the same for us, which I like. Everything stays normal back home, and I hope that it stays that way.”

Be Your Own Pet’s success is accumulative rather than explosive, but they’ve still managed to grab an impressive amount of attention over the last couple of years. Playing in a band seems to come naturally to Jonas, who explains that he started his first at the age of twelve and has been playing ever since, even though he never expected things to take off quite as they have, saying, “My original plan was to take some time off from school and travel. I wanted to travel and check out Costa Rica. That was the plan in my early days of high-school. But in the middle of high-school we started the band and started surprisingly quickly getting love for it.”

So there’s nothing he feels he’s missed out on?

“I used to wish I could go to college, but I think I got enough of that going to visit friends and hanging out for a couple of weeks. I think I just like the idea of getting to meet a group of people. People always say in the long-run that college is the best part of your life, and the reason for that is because it means moving away from your parents, partying, meeting new people, having a good time, and learning things, and we’re kind of getting that same thing, just in a whole other unique sort of way. So I feel just as satisfied.”

It’s striking that ‘Get Awkward’ seems more self-consciously angst-ridden than ever. Where the first album managed all-out rage, this time around there’s a playfulness to Be Your Own Pet. It’s still feisty, but there’s a now a slightly tongue-in-cheek edge to the song writing. Jonas explained that the fun side of their second album “just kind of happened. We’re all just a little bit older and have a little bit more experience, our musical tastes have broadened. We were just ready to make a record that still had a humourous side but at the same time had some depth to it. Some of the songs are a bit more poppy and accessible, but still maintaining the energetic side.”

Where the music has matured, the lyrics have only grown more defiantly teenage. Of song-writing, each of them has a different part to play in the process, but ultimately, Jonas says, “We all sort of do it together, it’s all kind of random, you know, me, John and Nathan will knock up some riffs, we’ll put it together. For this album Jemina did pretty much most of the lyrics compared to the last record when we all contributed a little. But I think it’s almost better this way.”

So Jemina is the one still suffering from teenage tantrums? “Jemina’s good at doing the whole teenage angst thing. She genuinely has a lot of teenage angst from when she was younger. So it’s very genuine.” The peroxide vocalist certainly packs a few punches in ‘Get Awkward’. Jonas’ favourite track from the album, ‘Becky’, sees Jemina in full high-school feud mode, promising to “wait with knives after class” for an ex-best friend.

But Gigwise wonders how they long they can keep it up. Surely one day this impressively aggressive punk act will have to grow up and move on from the frenzied fury of their teenage years? Jonas doesn’t see it happening anytime soon:
“I guess right now we want to hang on to that temporarily because we will, eventually, grow up. But Steve McDonald [their producer] is forty years old and still acts like a teenager. A lot of the people we worked with are like fifty years old and they still act like teenagers so who knows? Maybe we’ll be like teenagers for the rest of our lives. I think we’ll just take it as it comes for now and see what happens.”